Why would the world's most famous billionnaire, Mark Zuckerberg, pick Moises Naim's erudite book, The End of Power, as his bedtime reading in January - and at the same time create a book club on Facebook that drew 250,000 members over just two weeks?
The second is a little more complex. As the UK Guardian commented, the 'year in books' kicked off with Mark Z.'s announcement that he would read one book every other week in 2015 and everyone rushed to buy the first book he chose to read, Naim's latest opera magna. The effect was instantaneous: the book flew to the top of best-selling non-fiction on Amazon - I checked today, it's #1 in both "international and world politics" (hey, what's the difference between these two terms?) and "History & Theory" (never knew there was such a thing, does it mean the theory of History or the history of Theory?). No matter. The point is that Mark Z.'s choice sent it climbing off the high shelf (over 40,000th rank on Amazon) where it had been sitting quietly since it was published back in 2013. However, it should be noted that it had never been quite forgotten all this time: it had been enough of a success in academia and among the likes of Bill Clinton to be republished in March 2014. No doubt one reason why Mark Z. picked it.
But journalists won't let go of Mark Z. It was noted (again in the Guardian) that the reason for this choice no doubt had something to do with the fact that in his own way Mark Z., as the founder of Facebook, is one of the most powerful men in the world. And with a title like that, the "End of Power", Mark Z. would obviously be interested. Who wouldn't want to find out what kind of dangers to your hegemonous position the future might hold?
Back to Mark Z. and his book club adventure. How did that first two weeks of reading go? First, he organized a Q and A session with the author, inviting his 31 million followers. As reported by the Washington Post (here) it was off to a "pretty lame start" and the UK Guardian (here) noted it was a "disappointing first chapter". Fewer people turned up than expected, I checked, a little over a thousand out of the 250,000 who had signed up for the Book Club. And the stream of questions and answers were jumbled, missing parts and almost illegible - not a pleasant read.
Several journalists quicked noted that Mark Z. had been tripped up by his own algorithms on Facebook that nowadays (for reasons only known to FB programmers) mysteriously hide certain posts - and that many of the Book Club members probably had not even noticed the invitation to the Q and A session in their news stream. And many of those who did come obviously hadn't read the book, as shown by the 137 questions asked. Also, several people, rather than asking questions to the author, wanted the book free and/or complained of difficulties to download the book on their Kindle etc. Actually, when I went yesterday to the book page on Amazon to write my own review of the book, I noticed that hitches with the Kindle had even wound their way into an absurd 5-star review of the book - not a review of the book at all but a complaint regarding downloading (hence, why give it 5 stars?). Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), Amazon did not take it down even though it is blatantly not a review.
The Washington Post suggests why so many people might not have read the book by the time of the Q and A session:
"It isn’t exactly a sexy beach read. (From boardrooms to battlefields and churches to states, being in charge isn’t what it used to be”!) It’s also 320 pages long, which means — since the club starts a new volume every two weeks — you’d have to read 23 pages each day to keep up."
Yet in spite of all this hullaballoo around the book, it is, in my opinion (and I read it!) really worth the effort. Here is my review, as posted on Amazon:
An Excellent Read - A Misleading Title (4 stars out of 5)
Engaging, fast-paced and chock-full of information, it is a great read, hard to put down. The approach to analyzing power is novel and the premise on which the whole book is built is compelling, as many other reviewers have noted here, in particular, the three "Ms" - More, Mobility and Mentality - as analytical tools. The book argues that the nature of power today has changed; "minipowers" have arisen thanks to globalization and technological advances, in particular the digital revolution and Internet, and they are now able to successfully fight back the "megapowers" (read: nation-states; big churches and religious organizations; big, transnational corporations, trade unions etc). And the author provides vivid examples to illustrate what he means, well-chosen and convincing.
The trouble starts midway through the book when the time comes for the author to show that there is actually a trend towards decaying power. Naim fails to show that trend and the data he brings only shows that the nature of power may be changing, that it is become more fragmented, that it is shifting to newcomers. But it certainly does not mean that power per se is "ending" or that the megapowers will stop being big guys any time soon. On the contrary, with the rise in income inequality and the growing strength of finances worldwide - proof of which is now masterfully contained in another important book, Capital in the 21st Century, written by a brilliant economist, Thomas Piketty - what we are probably seeing is not the "end of power" but the rise of a different kind of power. A new class of people (the power elite? the so-called One Percent?) is now better able than ever to successfully lobby governments, or any other megapower, to advance its own interests. Though the art of lobbying has been around a long time and is nothing new - but then, the concept of a "power elite" is not new either. One could even reverse Naim's thesis and argue fairly convincingly that power is fragmenting in a million rivulets, leaving only the megapowers standing, re-inforced by growing financial strength.
In fact, Naim must have felt the ground shaking under his thesis because he doesn't really suggest any solution or offer a clear vision of what might happen once the supposed "end of power" is upon us. There is talk about alienation and entropy but no conclusion. Perhaps one reason for this weakness is that Naim's book came out in 2013, fully a year (or more) before Piketty's book. It is quite possible that Naim himself today would end his book differently.
And this is why I could not assign 5 stars to this book. Bottom line, perhaps the problem is more with the title of the book than its content - a catchy title to be sure, and no doubt the reason why Mark Zuckerberg chose it as the first book to read in his recently launched book club (250,000 members in just two weeks!). As the UK Guardian snidely remarked, the subject would obviously appeal to a billionnaire like him and the disruptive title provides just the kind of anxious frisson you'd want to get from a book about our society and where it's heading. It's a shame that it doesn't deliver on the promise held in the title. But it does one thing superbly: document the current change in the nature of power, how it works. And for that reason alone, it is well worth reading.
Happy reading and do let me know what you think!